Tales of the Chinese Zodiac: An illustrated chapbook by Jenn Reese

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Tales of the Chinese Zodiac
by Jenn Reese is a new chapbook from Tropism Press, the outfit that publishes the acclaimed Flytrap magazine. This chapbook compiles the series of very short stories that appeared in Strange Horizons, each dedicated to a year in the Chinese twelve-year cycle. There is also an addition of three new tales, The Forgotten Years (Carp, Owl and Mantis), dedicated to years that are not found in the traditional cycle of the Chinese zodiac. These tales provide an excellent and whimsical bonus to the already excellent and whimsical chapbook.

I’m going to violate Tangent‘s policy on reviewing all stories in order–the fifteen vignettes in this chapbook constitute a cohesive whole, and there are several themes emerging throughout. Each year’s animal is presented by a very short tale that leaves a lingering sense of magic; it’s a book of fairy tales for adults, and their morals are neither trite nor too obvious. For example Rat, the first story of the chapbook, is about a girl, Chyou, who was the queen of rodents. In her effort to stem the bloody war between her subjects, she turns to the ancient forces even she cannot control. This theme is echoed in Ox, the very next story where a farmer decides to grow animals rather than vegetables, and Tiger about a blind girl and her strange cure.

Other tales are joyful whimsy, undercut by the shattering sadness of their protagonists–Rabbit and Dragon will both stick with a reader for their beautiful images of longing. Horse is a poignant metaphor that will strike a chord with any parent who had to let their child grow up too soon. Goat and Carp both poke gentle fun at people’s follies. In the first, a man falls in love with a goat, and in the second, an old man takes a chance on becoming a hero.

Rooster was one of the more cruel tales, where Chen’s visions of a giant rooster drove him to war with all roosterkind. Misunderstanding of omens has bad consequences. Pig is a genuinely scary story of the farmer who wants to give his son the strength and appetite of a hog, and ignores the ill omens. In Dog, an old man trades bodies with a young dog, and quickly finds justification for not coming through with his end of the bargain. In Snake, a woman catches a renegade snake and gains unexpected rewards by not giving into snake’s threats.

Owl and Mantis deal with the value of dreams and illusions. In Owl, charlatan Li discovers that his low opinion of the people who bought his concoctions was not entirely warranted. In Mantis, a young woman contemplating marriage consults a mantis for an interpretation of a dream. Mantises, it seems, are not to be trusted.

My favorite by far was Monkey; the writing skill of Ms. Reese in this story is impressive, as with just a few words she manages to paint a complete picture. For example, "But the black monkey, Mingmei kept for herself. It was smaller than the others, smelled vaguely of ginger, and watched her constantly with its glassy brown monkey eyes." This story of an old woman and her loyal companion was both moving and funny.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. It is a glimpse into a beautiful, magical world. I miss it already.

Publisher: Tropism Press
Chapbook Price: $6.00